THREE WEEKS LATER
The gang are all sat smoking by the benches outside when, unfortunately, Miles stirs things up unintentionally by bringing up the possibly most controversial topic he could have chosen. In his defense, however, he only brings it up in an attempt to lighten the mood, unaware of his own mistake. Alex has been quiet and acting reserved all day, no – all week. All month. Everybody is growing desperate, because nothing seems to cheer him up any longer. He’s forever silent, removed from them, isolated and too lost in his own thoughts. He barely ever laughs at anything anymore, not even Matt’s jokes, not Jamie’s stories, or Nick’s parodies.
Believing that he’s picked a topic that might actually catch Alex’s interest for once, Miles utters foolishly:
“I wonder what Luke’s party is going to be like. You guys are all going, right?”
One at a time, they all look up at Miles dully, clearly not impressed with this change of conversation.
“Luke who?” Matt questions disinterestedly. “Hamilton?”
“No,” Miles tells him, “Pritchard, you git. He’s the one throwing a party this Friday.”
“Luke Pritchard?” Nick repeats, furrowing his brow. “Which one is he again? Is he the sissy who’s got hair like a poodle? You know, the one from Bristol.”
“Brighton,” Jamie corrects him.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Miles laughs, “what’s wrong? Don’t you guys like him?”
“Ha!” Matt snorts loudly, catching Miles off guard. “He’s just a whiney wanker who thinks he’s tough even though he’s from Brighton. Pain in the arse, he is.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jamie agrees, “he’s always tellin’ people these stories that are beyond exaggerated. Everyone can tell he’s a bloody liar. He’s just trying to draw attention to himself.”
“What stories will he be telling?” Miles quizzes with genuine curiosity. He’s only talked to Luke a few times. In fact, Miles can’t even claim to actually know the guy. All he knows is that he’s been invited to this bloke’s party – therefore, he’s prepared to give the fellow a chance.
“Oh you know, just these made-up stories about himself being an absolute prick to other people,” Nick huffs, “he thinks it’ll make people like him, but only stupid people fall for that kind of thing. He’s always bragging about fights he’s been in, claiming that he sometimes drives all the way down to London for the weekend, just to go to all of the trendy night clubs. What a dickhead.”
“Yeah,” Matt grins lazily, “I just remember this story he told everyone about kicking another guy in the face. Turned out it wasn’t true, he was just being jealous of someone.”
Jamie and Nick laugh and shake their heads. Miles hesitates for a moment.
“Right,” he says, “so you’re not going?”
“Nah,” Matt shrugs, “I might go if he’s got booze. It’s just a house party, right?”
“Yeah,” Miles tells him, “apparently his parents are in Paris for the weekend.”
“Ha!” Jamie laughs. “What a bellend.”
“Yeah,” Nick breaks in, “I bet he’s lying about that, too. Still, could go for a couple of free beers, I guess.”
“What time does it start?” Jamie asks.
“Uh, I dunno,” Miles drawls, pretending not to have read the invitation he’s received on his phone at least five times, “probably around eight, I guess.”
“Right,” Matt says, “we’ll show up at ten, then. Like all the cool kids.”
The others nod in agreement and for a moment, it’s all settled. Then Alex looks up at them. Though he’s been quiet all day, he suddenly interrogates:
“Did you all get invitations from him?” His expression is calm and slightly detached. Miles can tell that Alex is hardly bothered. Still, something inside him aches painfully when Alex adds: “Because I didn’t get one.”
“Oh hell no!” Matt shouts and gets up from the bench, looking the schoolyard over in desperation. “No one gets away with shit like that! I’m going to show that little prick – where is he? Where’s that little bastard hiding?”
They all look up at Matt in absolute shock. Miles has never seen him act this way before. Matt’s eyes are thundering dangerously and he’s clenching his fists like he’s getting ready to fight.
“Matt, calm down,” Alex tells him serenely. Even now, there’s a hint of indifference in his expression. “I wasn’t going to go, anyway.”
“Alex, don’t you dare defend him,” Matt yells, “who the fuck does that idiot think he is? Luke Pritchard from Brighton whose parents are in Paris for the weekend – I’m going to kick his teeth in!”
“Matt, no!” Alex shouts at him as their friend disappears inside, pretending not to hear him.
“Shit,” Nick exclaims and everyone eyes each other worriedly, “maybe we should follow him.”
“Bloody hell,” Jamie chuckles lightly, “is it bad that I kind of want him to punch Luke in the eye?”
No one answers. Instead, they jump to their feet and stagger after Matt as quickly as they can. It isn’t hard to tell where Matt’s gone. They are able to follow him just by listening to the bellows echoing all the way through the hallway:
“Luke Pritchard, you cunt! Where the fuck are you? Show your face, you fucking coward!”
Nick and Jamie sprint after Matt, running as fast as they can. Alex, on the other hand, struggles slightly. Though he’s doing a lot better and though his arm is finally back to normal, he isn’t really able to run. His spine is still too delicate, he risks straining himself. Miles grabs a hold of Alex’s arm, walking him down the hallway slowly, as though he’s worried that Alex might actually attempt to run and has decided to obstruct him from doing so. He doesn’t want Alex to hurt himself.
“Fucking hell,” Alex pants, allowing Miles to seize his arm, “I can’t believe he’s overreacting like that. I – I don’t want Matt to get in trouble over something so stupid.”
“Alex, it sounds like Luke deliberately invited everyone to his party except you,” Miles says, “I’m just as angry as Matt, I’m just – showing it in a different way.”
“It doesn’t matter, though, does it? I don’t care about his party,” Alex retorts. “Besides, it could have just been a mistake.”
When they finally catch up with the group, Miles and Alex are both horrified to see that Matt has managed to track Luke down, in the middle of the hallway, for everybody to see. Luke is standing with a few friends of his own, including Taylor, but everyone’s too focused on Matt to take surprise in that. Matt is stood with his fists clenched right in front of him and it seems now that Nick and Jamie, rather than attempting to talk some sense into him, are both covering his back instead, towering up behind Matt in case Luke or anybody else should start something. Everybody turns their heads around and stare in Alex’s direction as he and Miles arrive at the scene.
“Hey, Turner!” Luke shouts triumphantly, ignoring Matt’s threatening glare. “If you wanted to come to my party so bad, you could have just asked me for an invitation. You don’t have to be all shy about it!”
Luke’s idiotic friends begin to laugh and though Miles doesn’t want to pay her any attention whatsoever, he can’t help but to notice the fact that Taylor places her hand on Luke’s shoulder, as to tell the others that she’s on his side now.
“You shut your bloody mouth!” Matt snaps at him, taking one step forward which has all of them falling silent. “No one wants to come to your stupid, pretentious party anyway! But why the fuck would you invite everyone except from Alex? What kind of twisted game are you trying to play, mate?”
“Oh, back off, tough guy,” Luke sneers in his face, “my party, my rules! I only have to invite the people I’m actually friends with – if Alex didn’t make the list, perhaps it’s because he and I have nothing to do with each other.”
“But you invited me!” Miles finds himself shouting all of a sudden. People turn their heads in surprise, having believed the New Kid to stay neutral out of fear of making anyone dislike him. “You invited me even though we don’t even know each other!”
Miles’s input encourages Matt further.
“Yeah, you prick,” Matt huffs, “and don’t you go around pretending that you have sixty friends in this place, because I know you don’t! You’ve invited absolutely everyone you know the name of, except from Alex. Why the fuck would you do that? Do you have a problem with him or what?”
Matt walks up to Luke again, flexing his shoulders along with every muscle in his upper-body. Nick and Jamie follow with protectively.
“So what if I do have a problem with him?” Luke snorts, though he’s beginning to watch out for Matt’s backup slightly nervously. “It should be between Alex and I, shouldn’t it? Hey, Alex – what the fuck are you sending your bodyguards for? Did you lose the ability to speak for yourself in that car crash or what?”
Before Luke’s friends can laugh again, Matt seizes the son of a bitch by the collar of his shirt and flings him backwards against the wall.
“You better watch your fucking mouth!” Matt hollers menacingly. His anger is enough to make the veins in his throat pop out terrifyingly.
“Or what, Helders? What the fuck are you going to do to me?” Luke challenges him. “I’m just saying what everybody else is too afraid to say! No one wants Turner to be at the party. Everybody knows that he’s gone all weird and sad. Why would I invite such a killjoy to my party?”
Matt is frozen with resentment. Everybody seems to be holding their breaths now, looking over at Alex worriedly, awaiting his reaction. But Alex’s expression doesn’t change one bit. When Luke’s words fail to get to him, it appears to be the attention surrounding him now that makes him uncomfortable.
“You slimy wanker!” Matt finally responds, raising his fist in the air. “I’m going to make you eat your own words-“
“Matt, no – stop it!”
Alex springs into action and seizes his friend’s arm, rendering him unable to punch Luke. Alex holds on to him stubbornly, even when Luke and his friends burst out laughing at what they see.
“Alex, I’m not going to let him talk about you that way!” Matt hisses in between clenched teeth.
“I don’t give a shit, okay?” Alex persists, ignoring the fact that Luke’s group is hooting and ridiculing him now. “It’s just a stupid party, Matt, you know I don’t care about it. Just let it go.”
“Yeah, Helders, it’s just a stupid party,” Luke sniggers, imitating Alex’s voice, “what’s the matter, Turner? You’re afraid to go where people might actually have a good time?”
“Shut your fucking mouth!” Matt roars in unison with Jamie behind him.
“You fucking poodle!” Nick adds furiously. “Matt, if you don’t punch that bastard, I will!”
“No!” Alex interrupts them, once again. “Just – ignore what he says, alright?”
The pleading, anxious look in Alex’s eyes is enough to force Matt to lower his fist, reluctantly. No matter how badly he wants to break the sucker’s nose, he won’t do it against Alex’s will.
“Aw, you’re disappointing me now, Turner!” Luke mocks him. He’s braver now that Matt is finally letting go of him. “I thought you had more spirit than that. Do you really not care what anyone says behind your back? Have you lost your pride? Do you not even care that I’ve stolen your girlfriend?”
Apparently, Taylor is no longer with Dennis. She has been laughing with Luke the whole time and now she remains cool, allowing Luke to wrap his arm around her shoulders. She’s staring straight at Alex with a cold expression on her face, but everyone knows that it’s an act and that Luke is making a fool out of himself. She would ditch Luke and run straight back to Alex if he asked her to. But Alex doesn’t. He simply turns his back on them and walks away from the crowd, slowly.
“That’s what I thought – you pussy!” Luke yells at him, laughing manically. “Run back home to your Mama, why don’t you, Turner? Oh wait, you can’t, can you?”
That does it. Since Matt is stalling, Miles decides that he’s had it with this prick. He can’t stand idly by and let him verbally abuse Alex like this any longer.
“Hey Luke!” Miles shouts, forcing him and everyone else to look. “Why don’t you suck on this?”
Before anyone can prepare themselves, Miles has leapt forward and delivered a violent punch straight to the other’s jaw. Luke cries from either pain or surprise and Miles hollers furiously, as though he’s trying to scare the rest of them off, discouraging them from meddling in.
It doesn’t quite work like that. As Miles has managed to bring Luke down to his knees and is preparing to throw a second punch at him, Luke’s lackeys jump to his defense, hurdling upon Miles, attacking him, grasping at his limbs in order to try and bring him down. Miles produces a small yelp, a mixture between a whimper and a rebellious outcry as he feels a fist colliding with his cheek and someone else yanking at his hair. He’s utterly helpless until, mercifully, Matt, Jamie and Nick decide to take action after all. Even though they manage to free him fairly quickly, a chain reaction has been triggered, provoking everyone involved to fight madly with their bare hands, whether they are using their fists or are scratching the enemy bloody by clawing at them. They tussle and wrestle each other like wild, feral cats, leaving Taylor to scream in panic and run away in order to save herself, and leaving Alex to stop dead, watching it all happen with horror from the side-line, unable to do or say anything to make any of them get off each other.
In the end, Miles is ratted out to the head teacher as Luke and his friends all report that he was the one to start the fight and even get a few witnesses in the hallway to support their statement. However, even though Miles is facing an hour’s detention at the end of the day, which will be followed up by five more in the week to come, he has no regrets. He believes himself to have made a clear statement after today. First of all, that he is no longer the New Kid who is too afraid to piss anyone off to open his mouth. Secondly, that nobody – and he means nobody – gets away with abusing Alex like that. Not on his watch.
Miles is feeling better and better with himself for having stood up to those bastards as the day goes on. He even receives a few nods and a few slaps to his shoulder from people who have heard about what happened and approve of his actions. In addition, he’s now sporting a proud, swollen bruise on his cheek, which only seems to get larger and nastier every hour. He doesn’t care. It’s his proof of action. His evidence that he will do anything to defend Alex.
“I’ll give you that, Kane,” Matt tells him in the restroom, where they’ve all gone to clean themselves up after the fight, “I had no idea you were so quick on your feet.”
“Yeah, no one saw that punch coming,” Nick laughs appraisingly, “including Luke. That vile bugger.”
“You didn’t break your hand, did you?” Jamie mocks him slightly, though the banter is amicable as ever. “I noticed that your punching technique is a little rusty, is all.”
“Trust me, Cookie,” Miles laughs cockily, feeling uplifted by everyone’s praises, “I would sooner break that buffoon’s jaw than my own hand.”
Miles rubs at his swollen cheek with a wet towel. None of their injuries are too bad; Matt has got a busted lip, Nick a few scratches above his eye. Jamie is completely fine and does only need to use some water in order to comb his scruffy hair. Perhaps this is what keeps them bubbly and celebratory; the fact that they all came out of the fight feeling proud and mighty.
The only one who isn’t laughing is Alex. He’s standing silently behind them, watching as they congratulate each other once again. Miles is so high on adrenaline, he forgets that Alex has received some awful wounds of a much worse kind than any of them; the kind of wound that won’t swell down after a splash of cold water and a plaster. What Luke said to him earlier was emotional rather than physical abuse and for that reason, he won’t be getting over this episode as easily as they will.
“Hey Alex,” Matt laughs after some time, looking at Alex through the mirror, acting like he’s almost forgotten about his presence, “don’t you feel lucky to have friends who are ready to fight for your honour?”
Alex remains silent for a bit. Slowly, Miles feels the grin faltering on his own lips. Suddenly, the atmosphere has changed.
“Al, what’s wrong?” He hears himself saying. He can’t help but to think that Alex is being slightly ungrateful by sulking like that. Miles and the others could not have avenged him any better than they did. “Are you okay, mate?”
Alex looks up. The two of them are not used to calling each other ‘mate’, not even when they are acting butch in front of their friends. The word feels like an insult coming out of Miles’s own mouth.
“I’m fine,” Alex huffs with a twinge of disgust in his voice. The others look over at him in surprise.
“Alex.” Jamie utters his name almost accusingly, indicating that he’s being rude, but Alex doesn’t apologise.
“What?” He snaps. “I told you guys to just leave it alone, didn’t I? I didn’t ask you to start a fight for me.”
“Alex,” Miles says firmly, turning around to give him a serious look, “you heard what that prick was saying about you!”
“I did, and thanks to you guys, Luke won’t stop harassing me any time soon!”
“Oh come on, Alex!” Matt exclaims. “We had to stand up for you, man.”
“No,” Alex tells him angrily, “what you did was spurring him on. You basically made it even funnier for Luke to hate on me. So if that’s what you call standing up for me, I don’t need it!”
Unwilling to listen to anything his friends have to say, Alex walks out of the restroom and slams the door behind him. Miles’s mouth falls open in astonishment. He drops the towel he’s been cleansing his cheek with and is about to run after him when Nick holds up a hand, stopping him on the spot.
“No,” he tells Miles casually, “I think he needs some time on his own. Enough drama for one day, eh?”
But Miles is feeling downright awful. What was intended as offering Alex a helping hand has now become the complete opposite and only now does Miles see his own mistake. He has been so busy seeking glory, blinded by the admiration he’s now received by spectators in the hallway. He has managed to make everything about himself, even though his battle wounds are hardly worth fussing over.
Miles’s swollen cheek has now stolen the attention away from Alex’s broken heart.
Alex isn’t able to avoid his friends for long, seeing as he’s practically moved in with Matt and his family. They all meet up with him again at the end of the day, when they’ve all finished their last classes. Miles and the lads find Alex sat by the trees outside, looking small and lost on his own. Apparently, people have stopped approaching him unless Matt and the others are with him. Even Andy Nicholson seems to struggle to keep a conversation going with him, and the notion of letdown is pissing Miles off all over again.
“Alright, Alex?” Matt nods coolly, walking over to the fifth member of the group slowly. They’ve all decided to appease him if they can, as they hope to avoid triggering another one of Alex’s mood swings. Matt sits down next to him, calmly, and Alex allows it.
“Alright,” Alex mutters, looking up at the rest of the group with vacant eyes. He looks so sad and timid; like a mole who’s wanting to burrow his way under-ground, never wanting to have to face people ever again.
If either one of them had felt like blaming Alex for his anger earlier, they’ve certainly all let go of their bitterness now. Now it’s just about making Alex feel better again.
“You ready to get out of here, man?” Jamie smirks, hoping that Alex will be ready to rejoin them.
“Yeah,” Alex sighs quietly, “I guess.”
“Come on,” Nick says, clasping Alex’s shoulder, “let’s go home.”
“Kane,” Matt says, “don’t you have detention?”
“Yeah,” Miles drawls, secretly wondering what would come his way if he ditched and went home instead, “in about ten minutes time, I do.”
“Taking one for the team, I see,” Nick laughs, “I like that. Give them hell, mate.”
“Fuck off,” Miles grins. “You count yourselves lucky that I agreed to take all the blame.”
“You’re a star, Kane,” Jamie joins in, sniggering, “a bloody hero!”
Once more, Alex is the only one not laughing.
“Alex,” Miles speaks instinctively, seeing as they’re all about to go, “can I talk to you for a minute? Inside, I mean.”
Alex looks over at him dully. He hesitates.
“Go talk to him,” Matt encourages, pushing Alex forwards and closer towards Miles, “if anyone needs to kiss and make up, it’s you two.”
Alex doesn’t seem to appreciate the laughter that follows with Matt’s joke.
“We’ll wait for you out here,” Jamie tells him, “and Kane – have fun with the head teacher!”
“You’re mad at me,” Miles starts as soon as he’s dragged Alex with him down the hallway, where no one is around to hear them talk. Now Alex is leaning against the wall subtly, with his arms crossed over his chest and his gaze turned away from Miles.
“I’m mad at all four of you,” Alex mutters in a lowered voice, making Miles believe that he’s holding back, or at least trying to.
“But you’re particularly mad at me,” Miles points out to him, because it appears to be the truth. “Why? Is it because I started the fight?”
Miles reaches out to touch Alex’s arm, but the other steps away from him.
“You knew I didn’t want the attention,” Alex bites, sounding more upset than angry. “It was me he was insulting, not you. But you and Matt practically challenged him to say more nasty things about me, just so you would have a valid reason to throw a punch at him.”
“Alex!” Miles gasps. “That’s not true. That’s not what we were trying to do at all!”
“But it felt that way,” Alex remarks, “and guess what? You and Matt may think the fight is over now, but I’ve had people laughing behind my back all day. I’m the one who’s having to deal with the consequences, not you. People now think I’m a pushover who needs my friends to look out for me, even though I never asked you guys to fight my battles.”
Alex’s eyes are glowing and he’s looking more alive than he has in a long time. Even though they’re in the middle of an argument, there is a passion and a fire which has turned him vibrant and fervent. He’s suddenly more beautiful than ever, and though Miles doesn’t want Alex to hate him, he’d rather see him like this – fuming, shouting, standing up for himself – instead of being that sorrowful, secluded shadow of himself that he’s become.
“You’re right, Alex,” Miles tells him, “you don’t need others to fight your battles. You can stand up for yourself. So why didn’t you?”
“Why didn’t you stand up to Luke on your own?” Miles is pressuring him now. “Why did we have to do it for you?”
Alex pulls an angry grimace at Miles’s claim.
“You don’t get to choose which battle is worth fighting on my behalf,” he snorts, “and people like Luke Pritchard are a waste of time and energy. I would have rather left him alone.”
“I know,” Miles says, “but Alex, you don’t need to act so bloody submissive all the time. You shouldn’t have to steer clear of someone who’s obviously trying to offend you. Taking up battles with pricks like Luke Pritchard is good. Demanding other people’s respect is a good thing.”
Alex falls silent. There is a look of indignation on his face. Miles shouldn’t have to teach him things that he already knows and it’s all beginning to feel slightly too personal. Like Miles is attacking everything that Alex has become.
“You don’t get it,” Alex declares. “I’m not the person I used to be, Miles.”
“I know you’re not. I can tell.” Miles steps forward in an attempt to touch him again, but Alex still refuses. “Alex, listen, you can become that person again. The person I admired so much when I first met you. It wasn’t just that you were happy and sparkling. You were so strong. Everybody could see that. If you don’t learn how to protect yourself again, people are going to take advantage of you. And I don’t want anyone to hurt you.”
Alex’s eyes are glistening with unshed tears, but once again, he refuses to give in.
“You’re wrong,” he tells Miles stubbornly, “I can never become that person again, don’t you get it? Everything has changed now. I’ve changed. And if you don’t like the person I am anymore-“
“Alex, come on,” Miles interrupts, “there’s nothing wrong with me trying to give you a little nudge in the right direction. You don’t have to take offense…”
“Well, that’s easy for you to say,” Alex taunts him, “but tell you what, Miles, I’m not the only one of us who’s changed.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You never used to force me into situations I’m not comfortable with. You never used to make me feel bad about myself. But now, all you do is remind me that I’ve become weak and inadequate…”
“Alex, please,” Miles begs, “you know that’s not true.”
“You used my weakness to promote yourself today,” Alex attacks him further, “I’m the one who got hurt, but you came out looking like a hero, didn’t you, Miles?”
“God damn it, Alex, listen to yourself!” Miles scolds. “The least you could do is act a little grateful…”
“Even now, you don’t like it when I speak my mind,” Alex huffs. “You’re acting so sure about everything these days, Miles. You never imagine for one second that you might be wrong about some things.”
Miles pauses. He’s surprised that Alex has actually decided to take a swing at him like this, after everything he’s done in order to be there for him.
“What’s wrong, Alex?” He snaps. “Don’t you like the fact that I’m more confident now? Would you have liked me to stay awkward and nervous, like the first day you met me? Don’t you like it now that I’ve got other friends than you?”
Miles eyes are harder than he would have liked them to be, but it’s too late. He’s already managed to push Alex away, forgetting the obvious fact that if it hadn’t been for Alex to begin with, he wouldn’t even have been introduced to any of the people he’s friends with to this day.
“At least the old Miles didn’t care about impressing people. Or about the number of friends he had,” Alex grunts dejectedly, “forget it – I’m done having this discussion.”
“Yeah? Well, so am I!”
Before Alex can walk out on him, Miles turns around and abandons the hallway, scared out of his mind that if he stays just a minute longer, Alex will be able to detect the hurt in his eyes; the hurt that must be gushing and bleeding out of every pore by this point. What hurts the most is the realisation that, though he doesn’t like to be obvious about it, Miles has never actually wanted to change a single thing about Alex. Alex is still his sweetest daydream, his image of perfection. Alex’s love is still everything he’s pining for.
A few days later, Alex doesn’t show up for class and this is something which has Miles, Jamie and Nick worrying instantly; Matt decides to call them together as soon as he gets the chance.
“Something’s happened,” Matt announces solemnly and consequently, he has Miles fearing the worst.
“Is Alex alright?” He utters all panic-stricken and apprehensive, remembering his own mother’s little speech about people in mourning, and their tendency to want to hurt themselves. “Where is he?”
“Relax, Kane,” Matt groans exhaustedly, making the others wonder what he’s had to deal with at home, “he’s fine, he’s back at my house. My Mum’s told him to take some time off to – think about things.”
“What things?” Nick interrogates. “He’s not quitting school, is he?”
“No – no, not exactly. But something else might be happening.” Matt coughs. “Last night, we received a phone call from a lady wanting to know of Alex’s whereabouts. She claimed to be related to him, even though my Mum didn’t remember her from David’s funeral. However, my parents got Alex to answer the phone and apparently, it turns out that it was his Auntie Ruth getting in touch with him. You know – the woman with the awful sons, Alex’s cousins.”
Miles looks around him in time to observe the surprise on Jamie and Nick’s faces.
“Why the fuck would that woman get in touch with him?” Jamie ponders out loud. “I mean, aren’t they supposed to hate each other? Hasn’t she always been kind of nasty to Alex and his parents?”
“And why the fuck would she wait all this time if she wanted to check up on him?” Nick grunts. “The accident was, what – over two months ago? Why does she even pretend to care, I wonder.”
“That’s the thing,” Matt says with a shake of his head, “she wasn’t just calling to check up on him. She barely even asked him how he was holding up.” Matt snorts. “What a bitch. Nah, she was calling because she wanted something from him.”
“Wanted something?” Miles repeats incredulously. “What can she possibly think that Alex will be able to give her? His parents’ savings?”
Jamie chuckles at that, then turns serious. None of it is funny after all.
“It gets even crazier than that,” Matt tells him, clenching his fists unintentionally, “yeah, see – she wants the house.”
“What?” Nick groans with disgust. “The house? The Turners’ house?”
“Is she bloody joking?” Miles cries. “She doesn’t show up to the funeral, but she calls Alex ten weeks later to ask for his dead parents’ house?”
“Nah, come on, man,” Jamie bursts out, “surely no one’s that horrible.”
“Oh, but she is,” Matt continues, “and the worst part is – she thought she could make a deal with Alex, too. She actually thought she was in a position to bargain with him!”
“A deal? What kind of deal?”
“If she gets the house,” Matt pauses for dramatic effect, “she will let Alex move back in, let him have his old room back. She said she would even help him pay for his tuition fees if he goes to university when he’s eighteen. But more importantly; if she gets to move into the house with her three douchebag sons, she has agreed to become Alex’s new guardian.”
Miles tenses instantly. The look on Matt’s face is so stern, so grave, surely he isn’t pulling a prank on them right now? If he was, it wouldn’t be very funny.
“No,” Miles breathes, not knowing what else to say, “no, that’s not possible. Is it?”
“But I thought he had already moved in with you and your folks?” Jamie furrows his brow. “I thought your parents were adopting him.”
“So did I,” Matt says quietly. His eyes have darkened and adapted a rather blank look. Miles recognises it to be a look of disappointment.
“But,” Nick butts in, “surely Alex isn’t really considering her offer? I mean, why the fuck would he? I don’t imagine he’s dying to move in with her and her spoiled brats.”
“Yeah, man,” Miles agrees, “I’m sure he’s going to turn her down soon enough.”
“Well,” Matt sighs deeply, “I have a horrible feeling that he won’t.”
That night, Miles has just stepped out of the shower when he hears noises downstairs. Apparently, the doorbell has been ringing and he can now hear his Mum answering the door. As he sneaks into his bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist, he hears voices approaching as someone is ascending the stairs.
“I’m really sorry to drop by unannounced, Mrs Kane – are you sure he’s alright with seeing me?”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, darling, you can drop by any time you want, you know that, don’t you? Besides, our Miles is always happy to see you.”
Miles drops his towel and reaches for the only pair of trousers he can see from where he’s standing, realising that there is no time to worry about going commando. He only remembers last second that his fly is open, and he ends up biting his lip in a silenced scream when one of his pubes gets caught in the zip. There’s no time to fix it. Miles searches madly for a clean t-shirt to wear, but it’s too late. His mother is already knocking on his door.
“Miles, darling?” She hums, pressing down the door handle before he’s given a chance to stop her. “Alex is here to see you – isn’t that lovely?”
“Mum, wait, I’m not decent!” Miles hisses desperately, but to no avail. Either she doesn’t hear him or she doesn’t care about his mortification.
“Right this way, love,” Pauline tells Alex as she pushes the door open, leaving Miles to stop dead in front of them, frozen with embarrassment and half-naked – looking up at them like a deer in the headlights, “Miles, darling, did you remember to hang your wet towel to dry? Excuse my son, Alex, I told him to shower before bed.”
“Mum, for crying out loud,” Miles snaps, “yes, the towel is on the radiator!”
“Good, good – I’ll collect your dirty laundry in the morning,” his Mum humiliates him further, “now, I’ll leave you boys to it. Go ahead, Alex, love, don’t be shy. You can step inside.”
Pauline pushes the hesitant lad into Miles’s room, gently, before closing the door behind him. Alex looks up at Miles, matching his level of mortification perfectly. His expression is troubled by regret, his eyes big with surprise. It seems that none of them knows how to react.
“I – I’m sorry,” Alex then mutters, looking utterly out of place, “I didn’t realise… I can come back later if you…”
He pauses slightly as he doesn’t know what to say. He’s trying hard to divert his gaze and to not stare at Miles’s naked chest.
“No – no, that’s okay,” Miles sighs awkwardly, “I mean, obviously I didn’t expect any visitors, but…” He clears his throat painfully. “But it’s okay. I mean, have a seat.”
Miles gestures towards his bed.
“Are you sure?” Alex wraps his arms around himself, making himself look smaller. “I don’t mean to intrude.”
“Of course I’m sure,” Miles forces a self-conscious chuckle, “I just didn’t expect – I mean, right now, out of all people, I didn’t expect you to show up.”
Alex hangs his head for a moment. “I know,” he whispers.
“I mean, I figured you wouldn’t want to see me,” Miles elaborates. “Not anytime soon. I thought – I thought you’d be furious with me.”
“Miles, I’ve come to apologise,” Alex retorts, scratching at his neck reluctantly. “I never meant for us to fall out. Not like that. I’ve come to say that I’m really sorry. That, and Matt is having his grandparents over. I didn’t want to get in the way of him and his family. But first of all, I’m here to say sorry.”
Miles’s mouth falls open. He can’t help but to look Alex over and to study him closer. His uneasy posture and the biting of his lip is giving him away; Alex’s eyes are hidden behind his soft fringe and he looks shy as a small infant. He’s nervous. He’s scared that Miles is going to reject him, or tell him to go away. But Miles has forgiven him even before he came, hasn’t he?
“Oh,” Miles breathes. “Well, I – eh, why don’t you have a seat? I, uhm, should really put a shirt on or something.”
Miles catches Alex looking him over curiously, eyes glancing at abdominal muscles and forbidden chest hairs, all something which makes him apologise for walking in on him again.
“I really should have texted first,” Alex utters, blushing with shame. Perhaps the shame is about him showing up without an invitation, or perhaps it’s about him being unable to look away and give Miles the privacy that he deserves.
“Don’t worry about it,” Miles tells him sincerely, “I’m just glad that we can talk about this. Now, please sit down. I’ll be right with you.”
Miles dives into his wardrobe in search for a clean shirt whilst Alex makes himself comfortable on top of his bed. They are both silent for a moment, until Miles pulls a green t-shirt over his head and turns around to face his friend. Alex looks so sweet, sitting with his legs crossed, his hands resting on his knee. He keeps his head down timidly, and all Miles is able to see is rich, brown hair, the cute shape of a straight, but slightly prominent nose, and thin lips. Alex’s cheeks are slightly hollowed and it looks like he’s biting the inside of each cheek.
Miles wishes he wouldn’t look so uncertain of himself. So humble. He moves over to sit down next to Alex, capable of looking him in the eye now that he’s less exposed.
“I’m glad you came,” Miles finally admits and it pleases him to see Alex relax slightly, “I’ve been thinking about – you know what – for days now. If you hadn’t come to apologise, I would have done it first thing tomorrow.”
Alex seems genuinely surprised. “No,” he says, “no, don’t be daft. You have nothing to apologise for. I was way out of order.”
“You were not.”
“Yes, I was. I was behaving like a tit. Blaming you for what others did to offend me.”
“I made it my business when it was not,” Miles acknowledges, “I see that now. I should have stayed out of it, but instead I made a scene. I didn’t even understand what it was about at first – all I could think about was how angry I was. I was so angry that I forgot to consider your feelings.”
“But, Miles, you stood up for me,” Alex counters, “you defended me, you started a fight for me, even though everyone knows how shy you are. And I was so ungrateful – I was horrible to you!”
“No, Alex, you were completely within your right. I made it about something that it wasn’t. You were right – I was trying to impress people. Not at first, but afterwards. I did enjoy the attention. I was so proud of myself for – for finally having the courage to speak up. But in the middle of that, I forgot how hurt you must have felt.”
Alex swallows a lump in his throat. Miles thinks he’s gone slightly pale.
“I know, but…” Alex furrows his brow and hesitates. “I get hurt so easily these days. I mean, it doesn’t take much… I guess I just have to learn how to control my emotions. I keep getting these bloody mood swings and it gets in the way of everything…”
“Alex, you can’t suppress feelings like that,” Miles tells him, “I mean, you’re mourning. And you will be for a long time. It’s only natural to get upset.”
“Yeah, but – I’m not supposed to take it out on my friends and, and people I care about.” Alex sighs. “I’m not supposed to punish others for the weight that’s on my shoulders. Especially not when they get out of their way to help me. All my teachers think that I’m punishing them with silence. Even Matt’s parents are getting fed up with my misery. They never mention it, but I know what they’re thinking. Everyone is just waiting for me to stop sulking, and I keep letting them down.”
“Alex, come on – grief isn’t just something you can shrug off like that. People know that. Nobody expects you to just smile and move on all of a sudden. Everyone knows that it’s going to take time. You can’t be blamed for what you’re going through, and what it’s doing to you.”
“I know you’re right, it’s just… I can’t believe I said those things to you. I don’t even know where it came from. I didn’t even mean it. It’s like I just said it to – to hurt you.” Alex looks up at him. The pained expression in his eyes has Miles’s mouth going instantly dry. “I don’t want to hurt you, Miles. I can’t hurt you, just ‘cause I’m hurting. It doesn’t work like that. You’ve done so much for me. You – mean so much to me. I don’t want to push you away.”
“Alex, you’ll never lose me over something like that,” Miles speaks in an intense voice, inching closer. “Come on – you know I don’t scare away that easily.”
“Still, I’m really sorry.” Alex holds his gaze and he’s speaking to Miles from the bottom of his heart. “I’m sorry for taking it out on you. And I’m sorry that you got hurt because of me.”
Alex reaches out so suddenly, Miles jumps when he feels Alex’s delicate fingers touching his cheek gingerly. Oh. He’s talking about the angry mark he’s been carrying for a few days now. He’d nearly forgotten about his bruised cheek.
“Alex…” Miles whispers as the touch lingers.
“I can’t believe those dirtbags punched you,” Alex sighs sadly, “is there anything I can do to make it up to you, Miles?”
Then Miles knows.
“Alex,” he whispers again. Then he seizes Alex’s arm and pulls him close before he’s able to think things through. Alex is too surprised to resist. Miles rearranges himself and wraps his arm around Alex’s shoulder, bringing him even closer than before. Then he closes the distance between them by planting a firm kiss on the other’s lips. Miles has never kissed anyone before, though he knows that Alex is more experienced. He doesn’t have a technique and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. At first, the kiss is slightly wrong and not nearly romantic enough. However, Miles soon learns to breathe through his nose and relax into it. He pecks at Alex’s lips, slowly, asking him to open up. Alex hesitates at first, so Miles parts his own lips, leading the way. He’s holding Alex so close, reveling in the other’s warmth when he begins to kiss him more wetly, more persistently. Miles sighs against Alex’s lips – then, little by little, Alex seems to melt into Miles’s embrace, finally letting it happen.
Alex parts his lips and lets Miles’s tongue slip inside. Miles gets overly excited; his hands are now feeling up Alex’s back, loving everything that they are able to explore. He pushes his tongue against Alex’s, tasting, testing, sensing for the first time. And it’s even more beautiful than he’s ever dreamed before. Every inch of Alex is sweet and welcoming. Suddenly, he can’t get enough. Alex has started caressing his bruised cheek once more, gasping slightly each time Miles’s lips move over his. Miles takes his pleasured noises as a permission for him to continue. Gently, yet determinedly, Miles presses his chest against Alex in an attempt to push him backwards until he’s lying down on the bed. However, as Miles adds extra pressure and readies himself to get on top of Alex, he feels a sudden resistance. Alex’s hand abandons his purple cheek and moves down to press against Miles’s chest, stopping him from coming any closer. The kiss is broken quickly after that.
“Miles…” Alex mutters apologetically. “I don’t know about this…”
Miles is panting eagerly, but he forces himself to pull back and to not encroach upon the other.
“I’m so sorry, Alex,” he gasps, “I thought – I thought I would be more smooth than that.”
“No – no, it was perfect,” Alex assures him, “you’re perfect.” At that, Alex breaks into a small smile. “In fact, I kinda loved it.”
Miles can’t help himself. He leans in once again, seizing Alex’s mouth with his own. Alex accepts his kiss once more, and when Miles snakes an arm around his waist, Alex responds by placing a hand on Miles’s shoulder. Not to push him away, but to steady himself. They kiss each other deeply and slightly sluggishly; Miles is hoping to make it last and does not want to rush things. He’s dreamed of this moment more often than he’d be willing to admit to anybody, and now he wants to make sure that he is able to remember everything about it; Alex’s scent and taste, his warmth and softness. Miles wonders how it’s even humanly possible to adore someone so powerfully and so wholly. Everything about Alex seems to draw him in and pull him closer, to the point when it physically pains him to break apart from him again. Alex appears to want him, too; Miles can feel the other calming down and relaxing his body peacefully. Alex has closed his eyes and is now breathing sweetly against Miles’s mouth, allowing Miles to take control of his first kiss and to test whatever makes him feel good. Alex knows what it’s like to not enjoy your first kiss, so he wants Miles to have a positive experience. Only when Miles tries to get on top of him again does Alex withdraw from Miles’s engulfing embrace.
“I’m sorry,” Alex wheezes, blushing as he is forced to break the kiss for a second time, “that was amazing, don’t get me wrong.” He offers Miles a nervous smile. “I just don’t know if I can, you know… commit to anything right now.”
Miles exhales and licks at his own lip, taking in how sticky it feels.
“You – you liked it?” Is all he manages to say.
“Of course I did,” Alex assures him, “I loved it.”
“Because I don’t mean to be like Taylor,” Miles says before he can stop himself. “I mean – I don’t want to pressure you into things you don’t want to do.”
“You’re nothing like Taylor,” Alex grins, and as he smiles, his eyes are illuminated beautifully. “And I love that about you.”
“Are you sure?” Miles runs a hand through his hair, feeling flushed and slightly self-conscious. He realises that he hasn’t been rejected by Alex. Not as such, anyway. It’s not about him, but about something else. Yet, he can’t keep himself from wondering whether or not he’s played his cards right.
“I’m sure,” Alex tells him, inching suddenly closer. “Taylor used to make me feel trapped and cornered. She used to make me feel guilty for everything that I couldn’t… give her. You’re nothing like that, Miles. For one, you actually make me want to be near you.”
Alex leans in to then rest his head against Miles’s chest. Looking up at him slightly hesitantly, as though to ask for his permission, Alex then wraps his arms around Miles’s middle, cuddling himself against the other tightly. If there was any doubt in Miles’s mind before, it’s certainly vanished. Now he knows that Alex does feel safe around him. Stunned and pleased with Alex’s little gesture, Miles wraps an arm around the other’s shoulder, drawing him closer against his chest.
“See,” Alex whispers, “this is what I’ve wanted to do ever since I met you.”
“But you don’t want to kiss me?” Miles double-checks in his attempt to solve the puzzle.
Alex looks up at him worriedly. “No, I do,” he answers him with a hint of frustration in his voice, “I’m dying to kiss you back, it’s just… I don’t think I’m able to. I don’t think I’m ready. I want to be ready. Sometimes I feel like I can’t wait to, you know… be with you, Miles. But there are so many thoughts going through my head these days. There are things I can’t stop thinking about and it’s driving me insane…”
Alex is beginning to sound upset. Miles shushes him slightly by pulling him close again and lower his head down to press a kiss against his hair. He’s beginning to understand that Alex, perhaps, needs him as a friend rather than a lover at the moment. But Miles doesn’t mind, as long as he can tell that Alex needs him, full stop. Miles wants to swear to be there for him, in one way or another.
“It sounds to me like you need to blow some steam off,” Miles tells him in a soothing voice, “perhaps this is something we should talk about? Without Matt and the others, I mean.”
Alex shrugs slightly. “I don’t know,” he says reluctantly, “I don’t want to bore you with it all.”
“Alex, come on,” Miles presses on, “you know I wouldn’t be bored. It’s important to me, you know, knowing how you’re holding up. There’s nothing I want more than to help you if I can.”
“Thanks, Miles. It’s just…” Alex sighs and begins to caress Miles’s chest with his skinny fingers, through the shirt, and his touches are forcing Miles to bite his lip and close his eyes. God, the amount of self-control it’s taking Miles to keep himself from pinning Alex down against the mattress and kissing him all over… “I’m in a slightly awkward position,” Alex explains, interrupting Miles’s chain of thoughts, “I have to make a pretty huge decision, or at least, that’s what I’m telling people. Because I think I’ve already made up my mind. I just haven’t told anyone yet.”
Miles cocks an eyebrow. “A huge decision? Wait – is this about that aunt of yours? She offered to move into your parents’ house and become your guardian, right?”
“How do you know about that?” Alex asks with bafflement, tearing himself out of Miles’s arms.
“Matt told us earlier,” Miles admits, then cringes. Christ. Alex must think that the gang does nothing except talk about him behind his back whenever he isn’t there. “I’m sorry, it’s just – I don’t want to pretend like I don’t know.”
“No – no, that’s okay,” Alex mutters. “So you know what my aunt has offered me? What do you think I should do, Miles?”
“Oh – oh, no, I don’t know if I feel comfortable giving you advice on something like this,” Miles coughs uncomfortably, “I mean, it’s not really about me, anyway. It’s about you, and what you want. Although…”
“You said you’d already made up your mind, but that you haven’t told people yet. Does that mean that you’ve decided to move out of Matt’s house and accept your aunt’s offer?”
Alex turns his gaze away from Miles and shrugs, though the answer to Miles’s question seems obvious.
“I don’t know,” Alex groans, “I’m just – I’m just tired of being a burden to other people, you know? To Matt, to his parents… They’ve done so much for me already, I feel guilty that they have had to change their lives just to take me in.”
“Isn’t that what your aunt would have to do anyway, if she was to move in and become your guardian?”
“I know, but… At least she would get something out of it. Like the house. She’s always wanted to live in a bigger house than she does now.”
“But, Alex, the Helders don’t see you as a burden. You know that, don’t you? In fact, Matt was telling us that he would rather that you stayed with him and his family. He thinks you’re better off that way.”
“I know, that’s what he told me as well. But, Miles, don’t you get it? I have next to no family. All the family that I’ve had has somehow died on me, whereas Matt’s family seems to get bigger every day. And yeah, sure, Matt’s parents have told me that I can have Gary’s old room. You know, Matt’s older brother who’s moved out now. And it’s really kind of them. But what if this is my last chance of connecting with my remaining family members? I don’t – I don’t want to be the only Turner that’s left.”
Miles looks Alex over and he can detect the panic in his eyes. Alex knows what he’s got to do, but it doesn’t seem to be a decision that he’s fully confident in.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Miles sighs. “I mean, think about it. Perhaps there’s a reason why you haven’t been close with your aunt. Didn’t you tell me she was dreadful? And that her sons have been tormenting you all your life?”
“Yeah, but,” Alex has now adopted a look of innocence in his eyes, or perhaps naivety, “surely they wouldn’t offer to live with me if they all hated me.”
Miles is about to say something else, but he holds his tongue. He doesn’t want to be the kind of person who tells Alex what to do. And he’s already told him that this was his decision to make, after all. If Alex really wants to go through with this, Miles shouldn’t be the one to try and stop him, even if he wants to.
“I just – I just hope you’re certain,” Miles retorts after a short while. He’s got a bad feeling brewing in the pit of his stomach, but he decides to ignore it. “I mean, I hope there’s something for you to gain in this arrangement, Alex, and not just everybody else.”
For the first time since they started talking about this, Alex looks up and smiles convincingly.
“Don’t you see, Miles, I have everything to gain if I do this.” Alex’s smile evolves into a subtle reddening of his cheeks. “If I’m able to move back into my parents’ house, you and I will be neighbours again. And that way, we’ll always be close.”